Cubs

Jake Arrieta’s dream season for Cubs continues with 20th win

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Jake Arrieta’s dream season for Cubs continues with 20th win

Jake Arrieta is on a completely different wavelength right now, locked into a dream season where it feels like there is no end in sight when he pitches like this.

The crowd of 36,270 waited to give Arrieta the standing ovation on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, watching him put the finishing touches on a 4-0 complete-game victory over the Milwaukee Brewers and notch his 20th win.

And with that, the Cubs sliced their magic number down to three, positioning themselves as a team you do not want to face in the playoffs with Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation.

The National League has taken notice, with Arrieta lowering his ERA to 1.88 and putting together 18 straight quality starts, an unbelievable run that included his no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It just means that I’m putting my team in positions to win ballgames,” said Arrieta, who became the first Cub to reach 20 wins since Jon Lieber in 2001. “At the end of the day, that’s our goal – to try and pile on as many as we can. 

“Especially with where we’re at in the season, wins now at this time are more important than ever. Just happy about getting one for the team and keeping the momentum going.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon changes his tune on Cubs hosting concerts at Wrigley Field]

Arrieta smothered the last-place Brewers, allowing only three hits (two infield singles) and one walk and finishing with 11 strikeouts. His 0.86 ERA in 13 starts since the All-Star break is the lowest mark in major-league history. 

“It’s Bob Gibson-esque,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Maddon allowed Arrieta to throw 123 pitches and admitted he would have pulled his ace if the Cubs scored another insurance run. 

Arrieta struck out the first two batters he faced in the ninth inning – Logan Schafer and Adam Lind – and hit 94 mph with his second-to-last pitch. Khris Davis grounded out to end a game that only took two hours and 22 minutes, setting off the celebrations in Wrigleyville.  

“It’s a really tough decision to make in that moment,” Maddon said. “Honestly, if all this other stuff was not attached to it, I probably would have taken him out. With everything else attached to it, I thought it was appropriate to send him back out.

“You have to be in the dugout to really feel all of that. Believe me, I didn’t do it lightly or easily. I thought about it a lot.” Arrieta has now thrown 216 innings – or almost 60 more than he did last year in the big leagues. The Cubs are counting on him to shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Oct. 7 wild-card game and lead this team on a long postseason run.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Maddon said. “It’s all this stuff that’s very prominent in the news right now regarding pitchers and innings pitched. The thing I’ve talked about with him (is) the fact that he’s not in his early 20s. The fact that he’s been pitching for awhile, I think, separates him.

“Combine that with his workout regimen, what kind of shape he’s in, it was kind of like honestly a non-stressful 120 pitches, if that makes sense. He wasn’t really in a lot of binds during the course of the game.” 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have won almost 75 percent of the games started by Arrieta this season (23-8). He has been a stabilizing influence on a young team with rookies up and down the lineup and too many question marks in the rotation. That sense of confidence might make him arguably the team’s MVP. 

The Cy Young race could come down to Arrieta or Dodgers ace Zack Greinke (18-3, 1.65 ERA), which seemed unthinkable when the Cubs made that Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season. 

Within the American League East, Arrieta had a reputation as someone who would unravel, letting the game get too fast and giving up the big inning.   

With a straight face, Arrieta said he didn’t feel all that sharp during his fourth complete game this season, but he’s willed himself into becoming a No. 1 starter.

“I felt off, but you have a handful of starts where it’s a toss-up,” Arrieta said. “You’re not sure which way it’s going to go, but your mindset plays a big deal in what the outcome looks like. So try to be mentally tough and grind it out.”

The Cubs allowed Arrieta to be himself and didn’t try the cookie-cutter approach that didn’t seem to work in Baltimore (20-25, 5.46 ERA). Coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode didn’t try to completely rewire Arrieta’s mechanics or stop his crossfire motion.

The Cubs also discovered a curious student who would embrace the analytics, apply scouting reports and think on his feet. That immersion into the mental side of the game means Arrieta might only be getting started with 20 wins.     

“I know the results have been good, but I don’t dwell on it for too long,” Arrieta said, “because tomorrow I’m getting ready for Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, the body of work has been good. It’s been what my team has needed. 

“I’m just fortunate to be in situations where the team’s scoring runs, I’m pitching well and the wins add up. It’s just kind of one of those things that doesn’t happen often. But you try and appreciate it when they do.”

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

Some guys pump iron with personal trainers, eat kale salads and recoup in cryotherapy machines to make room for the gluttony of the holidays. Not me. I'm getting into shape for Thanksgiving the old fashioned way - by carrying the weight of some heavy questions from Cubs fans. So, strap on the old feedbag and let's dig right in.

Q: Do you think the Cubs get Harper? - @intensify

Luke Stuckmeyer: First of all, way to intensify the situation. This question might be in every Cubs mailbag we have until Harper finally finds a home. I'll give you my best guess. Bryce can really mash some taters and the Cubs could obviously use another big bat from the left side. I just don't think they are going to dive *that* deep into the holiday spirit. I'll say 75/25 that he ends up somewhere else. I think another team trying to make a splash will spend an insane amount of money to make Harper the face of their franchise. The Cubs already have three of those players in Bryant, Rizzo and Baez.

Q: Will we see Kris Bryant as a 3rd baseman or in the outfield next season? - @kimsrad

LS: Yes and yes. I think Joe Maddon will use Kris Bryant in both places. Expect the Cubs to have a more consistent batting order next year, but the lineup flexibility will continue in the field. I do think Bryant will play more game in LF than he will at 3B. The Cubs have always envisioned this is where Bryant might eventually end up at some point. I'd like to see former Cubs prospect Josh Donaldson return to the franchise via free agency for a few years and let Bryant take over full-time in left. We'll see how free agency unfolds, but regardless I see more outfield games for KB moving forward.

Q: What do you consider more important, a good top of the lineup hitter or a lockdown closer? - @tscott119

LS: Great question! In my opinion these are the two most important needs for the roster this offseason. I'll vote for the closer because a good dessert is always more important to a great meal than a good appetizer. A true lockdown closer helps shorten the game in the postseason and with Morrow's injury concerns, I want to see the bullpen beefed up. Help the starters by shortening the game. That said, leadoff hitter is still the second most important area of need on this team. The Cubs have been trying to find an answer to this riddle since Dexter Fowler left. So, I'd like a helping of each this offseason.

Q: Are the Cubs going to bring Jesse Chavez back? I sure hope so! #Cubs - @LindsTeach1386

LS: This goes perfectly with the last question. "Build the Bullpen" would be one of my themes of the winter and Chavez was terrific in Cubs uniform with a 1.15 ERA. He throws strikes and the Cubs also need that from relievers, too. He's told teammates that if he's not wearing a Cubs uniform next season he hang up the cleats after 11 seasons. I think he'll be back and it shouldn't be "too expensive."

Q: I'm asking Santa for a Schwarber jersey for Christmas. Does the big guy in the red suit need to put in a good for Schwarbs? #Cubs - @mommymack23

LS: For the record, I think Kap usually wears blue suits. I'd ask for the shirsey. Schwarber's name will be mentioned a lot this winter.

Q: Has this era of Cubs players peaked? - @spiceycentipede3

LS: I don't think so. It will be tough to ever top an historic 2016, but I believe there are more championships in this core group. This is still a young team and a healthy Kris Bryant can completely change the lineup. Now, let's see if Javy can take another step after an outstanding season and if Willson Contreras can bounce back as the best catcher in the NL. Theo preaches that player development isn't always linear in baseball. I hope he's right!

Well, that's six questions. One for every heaping helping that this turkey plans to take down on Thanksgiving. Thanks for all the great questions. Have a great and safe holiday next week. 

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."